Many years ago, I remember walking home in the freezing cold at the end of a nursing shift. It was well after 9pm, our hospital was miles from anywhere and a delayed handover meant I had missed both a lift and the last bus into town.
As I was trudging down the hill, a taxi stopped just ahead of me: “Do you want a lift, mate?”, the driver asked. “No, you’re alright, I don’t have the money for a cab, thanks anyway.”
“You’re on your way home from the hospital, haven’t you? I’ve just given someone a lift there. Hop in, this one’s on me. You lot do a fantastic job, it’s time we gave you back a bit of what you do for everyone else.”
A fantastic job? This was the early 1980s. We were looking after patients in a highly rule-bound environment, with endless petty cruelties and poor care inflicted daily on vulnerable individuals, most of whom should never have been in a hospital like ours in the first place. So-called “thump therapy” from unqualified staff and the “liquid cosh” from my nurse colleagues were common practices on many wards.
Yet here was a guy who thought we were doing a great job, who looked at us as dedicated and devoted to our patients. He had no idea whatsoever what went on behind closed doors.
I thought of the taxi driver recently, after receiving an insistent email from an adviser the other day. I will not name him: suffice to say that he is based in Sussex. The adviser’s initial message was sent in late March, in response to a column about the Financial Advice Market Review.
He took issue with my view that the FAMR’s central problem was a failure to address the issue of a lack of trust between prospective clients and advisers. Without it, the former were highly unlikely to attempt to contact the latter.
My correspondent wrote: “I have a relatively small loyal client bank and I can confidently say trust is the bond that keeps the relationship going.
“Where I believe trust is lacking is with the populace who either have had a bad experience of poor advice or were missold in the past, or those who have never had an IFA. I wonder if the latter group, probably the vast majority, have been put off from seeking an IFA because they believe the well-worn narrative from journalists like yourself, politicians and the consumer lobby that IFAs are not trustworthy and should be given a very wide berth.
“They have been dissuaded from seeking advice. Like a child who has pre-judged a new food, they have not had an opportunity to try and test a number of IFAs and see whether they can find one they like and can trust.”
My correspondent was eager for me to say whether I believed that advisers were truly trusted by their clients. If that were true, my job was now to make good, by correcting the misconceptions engendered by my colleagues and myself.
In the past few days we have had further email contact – and I am afraid to say the discussion has not really moved forward very far. The reality is I have no idea whether the “bad experiences” my interlocutor refers to apply to the “vast majority” or a minority of the UK population.
I do know if you include families of the many victims of every other dodgy financial incident over the past two decades, we are talking about many millions of people in the UK.
A study in 2013 by a firm called Dimensional Research found that 95 per cent of customers shared their bad experiences of service and 54 per cent did so with five or more people. Moreover, almost 40 per cent would refuse to avoid vendors they had a negative experience with for longer than two years.
In other words, it hardly needs the politicians, the media or regulators to lead to a lack of trust among the population. We reflect that lack of trust back to the industry, not the other way round.
Ah yes, my interlocutor would respond, but how is it that so many existing clients of IFAs trust their advisers? Does this not prove the relationship between advisers and clients is much better than doomsayers like myself are apt to make out?
Let me take you back to the start of this column and try to bring it up to date. I have previously mentioned an NHS investigator who reviews serious incidents for his trust.
Time after time, he tells me, his reviews identify serious omissions in the care received by patients, to the point where – in a few cases – they actually die as a result of those errors. Yet the patients themselves, and their carers, are so ignorant of the service they should have received that gratitude shines out of every statement they make.
The same imbalance of knowledge and understanding applies just as much to advisers and their clients. Most consumers do not know what to expect from their advisers, so it is hardly surprising they trust them, just like my cabbie believed in me many years ago. It is only when things go wrong that the penny drops – and trust shatters, never to be rebuilt again.
Nic Cicutti can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org